Why I Love NaNo More Today than Yesterday

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Yesterday’s sky as I drove to the coffee shop to write

I learned something new about myself and my writing today—something I’m not sure I’d ever have learned if it weren’t for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Okay, I know there are split camps on NaNoWriMo. In fact, you might either love it or hate it. Think it’s a great thing or the dumbest idea on earth. Writing a novel in a month? Why would you (or I for that matter) want to do such a thing? By the way, that used to be my opinion…so hear me out.

Truth is that up until last year (when I finished a draft of a novel during NaNo) I thought it was (a) pretty stupid, (b) pointless, and (c) defeated the entire point of writing (writing well, that is). I used to think that something good—especially something creative—couldn’t be forced. That is, that it really had to be done in its own time, at its own pace—fast or slow.

But now I wonder. Here’s the thing. This morning I wrote a scene I never ever thought of for my novel in progress (I’m a plotter by nature, most of the time, with occasional smatterings of pantser). The scene came out fast and furious, and when I looked up I’d spent not quite an hour writing almost 2000 words. But that’s not what surprised me. I tend to write very quickly (for first drafts). It was the actual scene that was different: the writing style and certainly the content, much different than I’d ever written or considered writing (for this novel or any other fiction project).

After I finished, I remembered having this experience with a scene I wrote during last NaNoWriMo—last year. It was a scene about an LSD trip, a wild car race up into the California foothills in a semi-stolen car, a young afraid woman desperately trying to understand and make sense of a young man’s actions and feelings. It’s a scene in the novel I’m currently querying (that I wrote last year during NaNo). It’s a story that has gone through many revisions since the first draft—and will most likely go through additional revisions because it’s a story worth working on. (The novel was named a semi-finalist in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition.)

The important takeaway for me is that the scene I wrote last year and the scene I wrote today taught me something important about myself and about NaNoWriMo. It’s not only that I can force myself to write. The first time out of the gate with NaNo, I figured out that I can force myself into the creative zone, the writing zone, pretty much any time I want to. I’m guessing that most writers who write fiction on a regular schedule know this, but here’s the new thing I learned today.

That sometimes I can actually write more creatively when I push myself. Even—and maybe especially—when I’m not “in the mood.” That sometimes, something very creative and very different comes out. A piece of writing that I love, a piece of writing that I’m proud of.

Just one of the reasons I love NaNoWriMo a lot more today than yesterday.

Can you force yourself into the creative zone? Do you write differently—maybe even more creatively sometimes—when you aren’t in the mood?

 

Do You Believe in Magic?

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Back to the coffee shop… more magic!

It’s all coming back to me. Two days into NaNoWriMo and the drama has begun. And it’s not all about the writing. I’m beginning to think NaNo (or birthing a first draft of a novel) is a bit like birthing a baby. You forget all the bad parts—the physical pain, the fears and the feelings it can’t be done, the fear that something will go wrong, the sleepless nights, the anguish of worry—or maybe you’d never be willing to do it again.

Last year I “won” NaNo. That is, I wrote 50,000 words during the month of November: National Novel Writing Month. Actually, to be technically accurate, I wrote more than 50,000 words. And I finished the first draft of a novel.

Last year I also wrote four blogs about my NaNo drama. In one, I detailed how I decided (somewhat spur of the moment) to commit to NaNo. In one I recounted my injury that I was afraid might sideline me from finishing (I shut my hand in the car door)—well actually MEH (My Engineer Husband) typed that one for me. In one I recounted certain NaNo truths (and lies). And in a final one, I talked about how I won.

Today I reread those four blogs. Believe it or not, I’d forgotten all about them—except the one that talked about winning! I forgot I slammed my hand in the car door. I forgot it was a last minute decision. I even forgot how much fun it was. It kind of went by in a whirlwind to be honest.

Yesterday after my first writing session (I wrote only 782 words—and I knew that to finish the 50K I’d need to average about 1600 a day), I was discouraged. I felt pretty sure that my idea wasn’t a very good one. Then this morning I got up early. I made a pot of coffee and started writing. Before I knew it I’d written a thousand words. Then two thousand. The idea still didn’t feel like the best one I’d ever had, but I was inhabiting the world, I was seeing the scenes in my mind. I’d even identified a song that was emblematic of the story. (It wasn’t  one of the ones from my last post. It’s “A Sky Full of Stars” by Coldplay. It’s now on endless loop while I write. Yesterday I heard it on the radio in the car and I had to turn it off—I started to feel my eyes drift closed, started to feel a writing trance coming on…no, really.)

And there’s more. That drama. It’s all falling into place. Like magic.

Drama.

I forgot when I got up that it was Daylight Savings. In fact, last night I accidentally set my clock ahead instead of back. So did I wake up two hours early?

I made coffee.

I wrote my words (2695 this morning).

I went into the kitchen and a spaghetti squash fell off the counter onto my little toe (as MEH said, “a squash squashed your toe.”

The first snow of the season started to fall.

After I posted a snowy pic on Instagram, I started thinking more about the novel I’m calling TYAAD.

More pieces fell into place, and I fell a little more in love.

Magic.

What are you doing for the month of November? Do you believe in magic? I do.

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. if you’re doing NaNo, too, let’s be buddies! I’m Julia.M.Martin!!

What’s Your Story?

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N and the Forever Young

“I don’t have a story,” that’s what he said when we first started talking, when I asked if I could talk to him sometime, hear his story. Everyone always says that. No one thinks they have a story.

Like I said in a recent post, I’ve been doing a lot of photography in one particular place—the dock and town landing of a nearby town. I’m lucky I live in a beautiful, photogenic place. The coast of Maine. “Vacationland,” the license plates say it all. It’s a five-minute drive to the picturesque spot where I go to take photos, where about a thousand boats are moored. A small community, that’s the way the Harbormaster describes it. And every boat, every boat’s owner has a story. That’s what I think. That’s what I’m after with my photos—the stories.

A few minutes earlier, “N” (the lobsterman) had made his way up the ramp from the lower dock. It was a misty morning, and I was taking pictures of blue boats in the mist, of a man loading a red bag into a small rowboat, of dark birds against a gray sky—of anything that stood out, of anything that I could actually see in a picture.

N stopped at the top of the ramp and leaned against the dock railing, squinted out over the water. I’ve been going to the landing enough days this summer that people recognize me. I think N must have.

“If you’d been here half an hour ago, you’d have been caught in a downpour,” he said.

I nodded.

We stood next to each other at the end of the long dock, N leaned comfortably against the dock railing. We watched the man with the red bag row out in the rowboat. A kayaker went by, and I snapped a photo of him over N’s shoulder.

“It’s not really a fog, but you couldn’t call it rain either,” N said.

“Definitely not,” I agreed.

“Do you ever come here in the winter?” He asked.

I lied and said yes. Well, it wasn’t a total lie. I’d been there once or twice but not regular-like, like N meant.

“Lots of people don’t see the beauty,” N said. “They just come here and never see.”

N had a story; I could see it in his eyes. I could see it in the way he wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

“How long have you been lobstering?”

“My whole life,” he said. “That’s my boat.” He pointed down to the end of the dock at a clean and tidy—a beautiful—lobster boat.

I didn’t see a name on the boat, often it’s on the hull. “What’s her name?” I expected a woman’s name. Many boats are named after a wife, a sweetheart, a mother. Linda Kate. Nicole Marie. Skinny Girl.

“Forever Young.” He turned and looked at me. His blue eyes clear under white raised eyebrows. We smiled. “I’m seventy-one,” he said.

“You were born here?”

“Yup. Grew up on Diamond Island.” He turned and looked back over the water.

I nodded. No story.

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Another day, the Nicole Marie

“My father was at Fort McKinley during World War II—have you seen the concrete batteries that are still out on the island? He was part of the Maine Artillery, met my mother when she was seventeen, bicycling through town. He left for Hawaii less than a year later…right after that I was born…”

Definitely no story.

N and I chatted a few minutes more, much of what he told me too personal to share in this blog—or anywhere. But it certainly won’t leave my mind, and when I got back to my car I jotted a few quick notes in a notebook I always carry.

I probably have two or three conversations like this each week. I take some photos, I ask some questions, and I hear amazing stories of other peoples’ lives. I love hearing the stories unfold, especially when whomever I’m talking to thinks they have no story to tell. It makes me want to write, too. Not necessarily a specific story I hear but just write. The more I hear, the more I think about life. The stories make me think about my own life, help me make sense of it all. And the more I think about life, the more I want to write…about life…about the interconnections and intersections and relationships of life, and about how we all fit together.

N and I chatted for a few more minutes—he wanting to tell as much as I wanted to hear. I wanted to ask if we could go out for coffee, so I could hear more of his story, but I didn’t. Instead, after just enough to whet my curiosity, I said good-bye and walked down the long dock to the small parking area. As I got in my car, I looked back and watched as N stepped onto the Forever Young.

I know where to find him when I want to hear more of his story…and when he wants someone to listen.

Where do you get your stories? Are you like me that you like to talk to people you meet about theirs? Do you have a story to share? I’d love to hear it.

 

The Treasure in the Box

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This morning I had a bit of a breakthrough.

I’ve been grappling with an idea for a new story…trying to figure out how to tie things together, looking for a thread. The idea came to me on my trip across the country, when I was driving across the southwest, and it’s been in the back of my mind, just sitting there. This morning I read a blog post that made me think of another story I’d started a long time ago—in fact it was my very first attempt at long fiction—and I thought of something in that story that might help me connect the dots in my current idea.

I wondered if I kept that long-ago manuscript, and I knew if I had, it would be in “the box,” the one I keep under my desk, the one labeled Phase I (I wrote about it here in The Goodbye Box). That box holds all my early drafts and ideas from my early forays into fiction: from the time I was in college, studying journalism, all the way through to when I was writing middle grade fiction as a young mother.

In the stack of folders, at the very bottom, I found the folder labeled simply: BOOK. Inside, I found almost 200 pages held together with a rusty clip. I wrote this manuscript over twenty years ago, and during that time the paper and metal had fused together—perhaps in some inanimate agreement that no one should ever open and read the pages… because…

The manuscript isn’t just old, it’s also bad. Incredibly bad. But this is a good thing. It was, after all, my first attempt at fiction. I can clearly see I’ve improved. Not just in writing but also in story and in complexity of ideas. The entire story is sketched out in a multi-page outline, but it’s simple and pretty boring. Interestingly, an old journal is intrinsic to the story, and old journals are also key to the storylines in two of the three adult manuscripts I’ve written most recently! It also involves a mystery, an historic southwest train robbery (the key piece I was looking for when I opened the box), and a dog named Homer.

Here’s a brief excerpt involving Homer:

I was interrupted by Homer running triumphantly into the room carrying my dank, filthy jeans that I’d left on my bedroom floor. Before I could say anything, he started growling and shaking them as though they were a small rodent. I jumped out of the rocking chair and ran toward him. “Homer drop those right now,” I said, which had about as much effect as a flea biting an elephant. Matthew’s uproarious laughter filled the small apartment as I chased Homer around the room. Homer took one look at me and decided I was ready for a good game of chase, which I was not. But every time I got within an arm’s length of him, he dashed in another direction. It is a frustratingly idiotic dog game that felt even more idiotic played in front of an audience…

I told you… it’s bad. You don’t want to read more (me neither). Clearly the real prize isn’t the manuscript, but I’m glad I kept the folder with those early pages. Not only did I find the information I wanted that could provide the missing link I was looking for, but I found something much more important in those pages. The real treasure in the box is the tangible proof of my progress and growth as a writer—cringe-worthy though it may be—bonded together forever with the rusty clip.

Have you ever found old work of yours that makes you cringe and/or makes you realize how much you’ve grown as a writer? Do you, like I do, keep everything you’ve ever written?

Cheers,

Julia

Wasting autumn sunshine

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I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.

When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote those words, it is believed he was living in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he wrote The House of the Seven Gables. So I’m guessing he spent a lot of time inside, writing, in addition to being out in the open air.

I immediately thought of his words when I was driving home from Starbucks this morning, passing the red and gold woods infused with autumn sunshine. The sun hit the trees just right and not only did the trees blaze, but the sky around them glowed, too. All I had with me was my iPhone so I rushed home to get my camera… I wanted to be outside, but—more importantly—I had a blog in mind.

When I found the camera, tucked on a shelf in my study, the battery was dead. A year ago this would never have happened. A year ago I was taking more photos, putting more photos in my blog, spending more time on social networking in general. I looked back at my autumn post from last year, “Amidst Swirling Words & Leaves,” and not only does it have three photos (taken with a real camera) but it also has a full poem (Longfellow) and I made a special trip to nearby Bowdoin College to take the photos.

Times change. I’m outside a lot less (sorry Nathaniel), the camera battery is not charged, the garden is ill-kempt, the house is unclean, meals have been reduced to the speediest possible, and my blog has taken the backseat. I’m still writing, but I’m focused more on fiction.

I’m writing every day, and I’m loving it. So let the camera battery remain uncharged (I can always use my iPhone if I have to…which is what I did for the photo accompanying this post), let the Twitter account collect dust most days, let the blog take the hit with fewer postings, because my mind is swirling with words…and stories.

What are you up to this fall? Are you enjoying the weather outside? Taking photos? Or are you (like me) happily (inside) at your writing station?

Cheers,

Julia

The Coveted Moleskine

Right there on the label it says it all: Legendary notebooks.
Ever since MEH (My Engineer Husband) gave it to me for Christmas, it’s been sitting on the kitchen counter next to my to-do list. I kept it wrapped in its lovely shrink-wrapped perfection until yesterday when I finally opened it, stripping away the bright green paper wrap. I put the notebook back down on the counter—still nervous about opening it.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted one of these notebooks… surely since the first time I saw one. They’re beautiful. The classic black cover is soft to the touch, the pages smooth. An elastic band keeps the journal closed, a narrow silk bookmark is attached within. On the bottom of the back cover, Moleskine is engraved.

I’ve watched for years as my son filled up Moleskine after Moleskine. (He got another one this Christmas, too.) But me? I have to admit I have trepidations to start even one. You see, I’m a failure as a keeper of journals.

Inside the front cover, on the facing page, is printed In case of loss, please return to, followed by four lines, then As a reward $: A reward? For something I’d written?

Most of my failed journal attempts are on a shelf next to my desk. Nothing as beautiful as the Moleskine graces these: a handful of spiral notebooks of various sizes, a few old lab notebooks, two or three less beautiful bound books—each one abandoned, each one with a painful jagged edge where I tore out the first few pages.

I’m afraid to start the Moleskine, that it will end up with the others. As long as I don’t start writing in it, I can save it from the shelf. But why? Where is this fear coming from? When I was younger—much younger: in middle school, high school, even the first years of college, I kept a journal. But something made me stop. It wasn’t that I stopped writing—I write much more than I ever did in those days. But I wanted to stop writing anything too personal.

Doesn’t that sound crazy as a writer? Somehow writing something so personal that only I would read, see, is slightly terrifying to me. When I wrote nonfiction (particularly technical writing), I never had one bit of myself on the page—never an acknowledgement or even authorship. Just one time, in just one computer guide, I used my name in an example—in the hundreds of thousands of pages of writing I did. That was as personal as it got.

And now, as I write fiction, I hide behind the mantle of my characters. Maggie True, Annie Byrne, Ellen Langton. Those women, each of them also a writer, two write in journals, one even has a Moleskine. They are free to write about their feelings, their innermost fears and dreams.

But me?

No. Right now I don’t know if I’m ready to bare my soul, to live up to the Legendary notebook, the coveted Moleskine. And so for now the Moleskine will remain unopened on the kitchen counter.

What about you? Do you keep a journal? A Moleskine? Are you ever afraid of baring your soul, of getting toopersonal?

Cheers,

Julia

Multiple Genre Obsession


This work is in the public domain in the United
States because it was published (or registered with
the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with the idea of writing (and reading) in a variety of genres, especially those new to me. For the past week I’ve been trying to figure out how to sum it all up—how to write a post about my new writing obsession. Then today, just when I gave up and decided to write a post about something else, I read Henry Denker’s obituary in the New York Times.

If you’re like me, maybe you don’t know who Henry Denker was (I’m a little sad and a little embarrassed that this is the case, by the way.). The headline grabbed me: Henry Denker, Author in Many Genres, Dies at 99. But if that hadn’t pulled me in, this quote would have:

“A writer should be active in several forms of his trade. Writing is a business and should be practiced as such. On days when you think you can’t possibly write a line you do it anyhow.”

When I read that, I knew I would’ve liked Henry. And the more I read, the more I liked him: Henry had a prolific career, during which he wrote plays, radio scripts, television movies, novels (over 30!), and more. And his writing sounds fascinating and important—I will definitely be checking it out.

But what really struck me about Henry Denker was his versatility as a writer and his interest in writing a variety of genres. Henry Denker and I, we’re cut from the same cloth in this way, because although right now my heart lies with women’s fiction, I’ve also written short stories, picture books, and middle grade novels; I’ve dabbled in ghost stories, romance, and humor. (This doesn’t begin to sum up my nonfiction writing experience, but that’s a horse of another color.)

My current WIP is a modern-cozy mystery. I’m also in the planning stages of a dark romantic-suspenseful women’s fiction novel. But in truth I’m fascinated with writing in other genres, many genres. And I confess the more I read, the more interested I am in writing an even wider variety of fiction.

A few weeks ago I read two books that gave me pause to think….what if? Would I want to try to write something like one of thesebooks, way outside anything I’ve written before?

One was a romance: The Bro-Magnet (A Nice Guy Romance Novel)by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. This novel is told from the male POV. One of the reasons I find this so fascinating is that one of my WIPs has three main characters and two are male, and I’ve been thinking of writing from each character’s POV. This novel made me think outside the box, and I like that. It was a unique and different novel, which I also like. And it was a fast and funny read, too.

The other book was Drawn, by Marie Lamba. I’ll be honest. I started this novel because a sample chapter was available free on Amazon for Kindle. I read the sample chapter and was hooked: it’s about a young woman who moves to England and starts sketching drawings of a “hot ghost” from the 1400s. Yes, this novel is a paranormal YA novel, and it’s only the second YA book I’ve ever read. I rarely even consider reading paranormal books, but I LOVED this book. It absolutely captivated me, and it actually made me think about writing a paranormal and/or a YA novel. I highly recommend it.

Because here’s the thing. As I read in a wider circle, I’ve realized I like writing a variety of fiction. And these two books—and now Henry Denker—made me think that maybe I might expand my “genre writing circle” even more. It also made me realize once again, how much I love writing about almost anythingreally everything.

And then it made me wonder… how many other writers out there are like Henry and me? I’m so curious how other writers—how you—feel about cross genre writing. Are you tempted to write in a variety of genres? And if so, have you written in multiple genres? Or are you true blue to just one? I’m so interested to hear!

Cheers,

Julia

How Far Would You Go?

“Harold, I’m sorry. You have to die…It’s her masterpiece, possibly her most important work in her already stunning career. I’ve been over it again and again, and it’s absolutely no good unless you die at the end….it’s the nature of all tragedies that the hero dies but the story goes on forever.”  – Dr. Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman), Stranger Than Fiction

The other night I watched Stranger than Fiction—one of my favorite movies about writing. If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it for its entertainment value alone. Harold Crick (played by Will Farrell) is a hapless IRS agent who, it turns out, is also the main character in a novel being written by author Kay Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson). It’s not entirely clear if Eiffel invented Harold or if somehow she is writing things that begin to happen to him. It is clear—however—that Harold Crick must die.

I don’t want to give away the whole movie, but to figure out what’s going on—why someone is narrating his life—Harold goes to see a professor of literature. The series of visits and literary analysis that the two go through are hilarious…as Dr. Hilbert devises a series of questions to figure out whether Harold’s story is a comedy or a tragedy. Sadly, ultimately Dr. Hilbert confirms that Harold’s story is a tragedy so he must die to ensure the success of Eiffel’s novel.

It made me consider. And admittedly, this is an outrageous question. How far would I go to ensure I had a masterpiece? Or for that matter, to have a book published? Would I care if my main character—who turned out to be a real person, albeit that I didn’t know, could die as a result of me finishing the book?

To me, this extreme allegory could be the expression of what we all go through as writers. How do we get the words on the page, get the job done. Make our characters come to life? What games must we play in our minds? How do we convince ourselves that the story is worthy of telling?

Do we need to imagine a real person at the other end of what we’re writing? I’ve been thinking about this a lot while I’ve been revising the draft of my WIP. Primarily because I have pictures in my mind of most of my characters—but two (my main character and her new love interest) have been hazy in my mind’s eye.

Then about two weeks ago I went into Starbucks, and a group of women was seated at a table a few feet from where I stood at the cash register. When I glanced over, one woman seemed familiar, almost as though I knew her (I didn’t), and I realized in a flash that it was how I pictured “Annie,” my main character. A strange sensation passed over me as I surreptitiously glanced over at her several times, memorizing details that I could write later.

And yesterday, at Trader Joe’s, when MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went to buy some wine, we were approached by a Trader Joe’s employee. The second I saw him I knew: he was “Annie’s Will,” her new love interest. I briefly considered using my iPhone to snap his picture—but decided that was going too far, and anyway he might have noticed.

After he answered our questions about Proseco, “Annie’s Will” walked away, and as he did, MEH—who knew I was in search of a face to fit the character in my mind—turned to me and said: “Let me guess: Will?” He had seen my writer’s face.  


As I consider my main characters—these two individuals who have come to personify them, yet with whom I have no relationship beyond my imagination—I wonder. Could I like Kay Eiffel write a scene that I knew would affect them? What if it was a good thing—that as a result of what I wrote, “my Annie” and “my Will,” selected seemingly at random, would really meet and fall in love? 

Could I cause one of them harm? (In truth I can’t even write the words in this blog “to die” in relation to anyone, so I think I know my answer to that one.) But a broken arm? A minor accident? A cold? To ensure a bestseller, a masterpiece, or simply a published novel?

How far would I go?

How far would you go? How do you put faces to your characters? 
Cheers, 

Julia

The More You Know…

A view out my main character’s window

These days I’m focused on my Work in Progress (WIP)—the one I finished a first draft of last month. I’m all set up on the dining room table with everything I need. Almost everything.

While I reorganize, edit, rework, I’m also doing research. I want to make sure I get it right. It’s a work of fiction, that’s true, but it’s reality-based. It takes place in a fictitious town, on a fictitious island in Maine, but there are still things that need to come across as real.

So as I go through the draft, I have a notebook in hand, and I’ve been making notes of everything I need to check. Questions about things like tides, how water flows, boats, land density, how houses looked during certain times in history, cultural and societal details, renovation and construction of houses, fishing and lobstering, and even treatment of mental health.

These details are what will make my story real to a reader, I know that. But right now—more importantly—they are bringing my story and characters to life for me. Maybe it’s partially my journalist roots, but one of my favorite parts of writing is the research: making lists of questions then figuring out how to get the answers.

I’ve done both primary and secondary research.

I’ve looked at documents, many many old (and new) photographs, deeds, land plots, architects’ drawings, maps of Casco Bay, mental illness case studies.

My dining room work station
I read books, search the web (of course), but I’ve also visited a few libraries, local historical societies, the Town Assessor’s office, the Town Engineer’s office, the County Registry of Deeds. I look at the documents they have, talk to the people who work there.

Because one of my favorite parts of the research process is sitting down with a person or talking to someone on the phone, a list of questions in front of me. Asking questions. Listening. Understanding. People who grew up on islands, people who summer on islands, people with deep roots in Maine but also not so deep. Fishermen and lobstermen, historians, and anthropologists. Contractors, mental health providers, engineers.

And I’ve been going on field trips (which I’m sure sounds like absolute torture…): islands, beaches, out on the water in lobster boats and ferries, old houses, local construction projects, walking trails in local wooded areas, gardens, even coffee shops and cafes. This is one of the reasons I started making the weekly Sunday videos from the beach overlook. Most field trips are planned but some have been impromptu. I’m driving someplace else and I see something I want my main character to see or someone she should talk to. I stop and do some research on the fly.

As I talk to people and visit various offices and experts, I take tools with me: always my reporter’s notebook (and pen), my iPhone (for photos and audio recording), often my SLR camera. Photos have been indispensible in reminding me what I see and even how I’m feeling when I see something: a sunset or sunrise, the starry sky, a moonrise, a boat or a house, a natural landmark or object, and—yes—I’ve even taken some photos of people (some without them even knowing, it’s true).

As I edit and write, I keep photos handy. In particular, a photo of a house—the one I imagine my main character lives in. I also have a photo of the views my main character sees out her window. My notebooks are also by my side, and I read through them frequently—if an interview is particularly important, I’ll type it out. The physical act of transcription helps me remember. If I make an audio recording, I transcribe it as soon as possible.

But that’s where the information stops: in a notebook, on a typed sheet of paper, in a photograph or photocopy, and in my mind’s eye. Most of the research will never see the printed page in my WIP—not in a form anyone but I will recognize. But these details I’ve collected help me shape the story: my character, her history, the things around her, what she sees and feels. And ultimately they will bring my story to life not just for me but for you too.

How do you make your stories come to life for you and your readers? What kind of research do you do for your stories? Are you like me—you enjoy the research process?


Cheers,
Julia

Do You Enter the Zone?


This week I’m knee deep in editing the first draft I finished a couple of weeks ago.
And I’m in “the zone.” I actually did a google search to figure out what was going on—was I the only one? I started by searching for “writer becomes character.” Because a weird thing is happening: almost every time I sit down to work on this book, I start “seeing” my main character’s world, feeling her feelings—entering “the zone.”

After a few minutes of searching, I finally stumbled upon an older post called “Getting Into Character: Fiction Writing Exercises.” (This post also has some great exercises for helping you get in the zone.)

“Many artists and creative people talk about entering “the zone.” This is a state of mind in which you’re running on automatic pilot. Your right (creative) brain is fully engaged and your left (logical) brain is snoozing with one eye open. It is in this state that people often get lost in an activity, lose track of time, and produce some of their best creative work.”

When I am in the zone, I am quiet, more focused. I’m watching and hearing things in my mind: a conversation, a vignette, a scene. I can see places and people. I visualize walking into my main character’s kitchen and from the kitchen to the left, past a peninsula to the main room, a bank of windows straight ahead overlooks the water—to my right a staircase leads upstairs.

Sometimes, if I’ve been working intensely for several hours and I need to run an errand, go out of the house, I am silent and anti-social. I don’t want to leave the world I’ve created in my mind and now on paper. MEH (My Engineer Husband) says he can tell when I’ve entered the zone because I have the same look on my face I get when we’re in a restaurant and I’m listening to others diners’ conversations, like in this post. If I talk about someone—he feels he needs to ask: “Is this a real person or someone in the book?”

Getting into the zone is not always easy. These days it usually happens right when I sit down to work. I’m there. But sometimes I need to go somewhere to trigger the feelings. When this happens, I’ll go and sit in the spot I imagine is the view my character sees from her window. I sit on the rocks and I wait. I think about that place in my mind, that other place in another world, and my view shifts away from what’s in front of me—and into the world in my mind.
When you’re deeply involved in your stories, your characters, are you overwhelmed by their presence like I am? 

Do you enter “the zone”? 

Cheers,

Julia

What’s Rain Got to Do with It?

“…Into each life a little rain must fall…”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It’s raining this morning. And I’m glad. It’s not only that I love the rain—honestly I love a rainy day almost more than a sunny one.

But more importantly, it reminded me: I forgot to have any rainfall in my recently-completed first draft WIP (Work In Progress), that I blogged about here. Maybe it shouldn’t matter—I mean does every single novel need to mention the weather? Not according to Mark Twain, who reportedly received complaints from some readers about not including enough weather in his books (others complained there was too much mention of weather!).

I didn’t realize this about Mark Twain until I talked to MEH (My Engineer Husband) about my rain omission. He said it reminded him of the forward Mark Twain had in one of his books, The American Claimant. Consider this excerpt from a section called THE WEATHER IN THIS BOOK:

“No weather will be found in this book. This is an attempt to pull a book through without weather. It being the first attempt of the kind in fictitious literature, it may prove a failure, but it seemed worth the while of some dare-devil person to try it, and the author was in just the mood….”

Unlike Mark Twain, I’m not in the mood to exclude the weather. In fact, I am particularly surprised about my weather omission because my main character spends a lot of time outside in the natural world. Further, a house is being built. And both these things are affected by the weather, especially in a place where there are seasons.

Fortunately I am editing and rewriting my draft and can easily work in the rain and how it affects, motivates, and propels my main character—and my story.

But, more, today’s rain served as a reminder to me that I need to pay close attention to the details, and that these very details will help me create a more realistic, believable, and captivating story.

As Mark Twain said: “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” Do you talk about the weather in your writing? Is it pertinent to your story or irrelevant?

Cheers,

Julia

Why Do You Write?


Today I am blogging in response to Jessica Brooks’ question, posed on her blog, My Thoughts Exactly, on February 28:

“Q for you — What made you start writing? Was it a story that popped into your head one day? Or something that gradually morphed into an idea? I’d love to hear about it!”

This is a complicated question. With a long answer and a short answer. The short answer is: I have always been a writer.

I can remember constructing stories in my mind for as long as I have memory. Then in middle school and high school I wrote first in diaries and then all through college in journals. Poetry, short stories, and about my life. Everything and everyone was fair game. In those days I didn’t have a whole lot of sense about what I wrote and how I revealed myself in my writing, so thank goodness it was before the age of blogging, or I might not have any friends or family that would still be willing to speak to me.

College

In college—even though I started out in geology, changed over to anthropology, then biology, and finally journalism—I was always “that guy” who had comments like: “I really like your voice.” or “Wow, you’re a great writer.” That doesn’t mean I always got an A. I didn’t.

That’s because most of the time papers were written toe to deadline. That’s how I like(d) it best. It wasn’t until journalism that I hit my stride, and I figured out that there was a place for writers like me, and I learned how to control my writing and the accompanying deadlines. And I learned how to manage my writer’s mind.

The truth is I’m always writing in my mind. When I finally sit down for butt-in-the-chair-time (thank you Professor Drechsel for teaching me the importance of that), I’ve written the bulk in my mind. No matter if it’s fiction or an article or even a 400-page technical manual—it’s there.

The Zone

And then there’s the zone. Hitting the writing zone where everything else falls away, it’s just me and pen-to-paper or nowadays fingers-on-keyboard. So strong the concentration that when I’m done, sit back and look, it’s almost like a foreign language to me. Sometimes it feels like an out of body experience—did I really write this?

That doesn’t mean it’s always good, but I get it down, and it’s a place to start editing. (Another blog….my editing mind.)

Technical Writing

Most of my professional writing has been business and technical, a writer for hire. Someone asked me recently how I could write about technical things that I don’t develop or know inside-out, that I’m not an expert on. The answer is I don’t know, but I can. I think you’d get the same answer from almost any technical writer you’d ask….or at least the honest ones.

Fiction

Where do I come up with stories? I mean, the business or technical writing (after scrounging up clients) is easy. I write what they want.

But what about fiction? I have way too many ideas.

Almost every person I meet, experience I have, something I witness, a conversation I overhear—my first reaction is: how would I write this? It’s my nature of being an observer, a deep-seated remnant of my childhood, of feelings unheard, of not being acknowledged (this will never be a blog, but may be in fiction). Sometimes writing a scene in my mind helps distance myself from a situation when it becomes too intense.

As for my current works in progress: the middle-grade fiction is based on a gift from a grandparent and the bad luck it ensued; the adult novel is based on the feeling of never fitting in; the non-fiction is based on my love of cooking; the young adult is based on my coming-of-age experiences living in Africa. There’s more…there’s always more.

Blogging

One of the reasons I started blogging was to keep on writing every day, to give myself that deadline I like to nudge up against. The bonus? That someone may read what I write! That I’ll meet other writers?! That I will reach outside my usually-solitary world.

And that’s the short answer. Stick around and you might hear the long.

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. Nice to meet you! Thanks for reading my blog! Here’s my question for you: What makes you write? Is it something you chose to do? Or is it just what you do? Do you enjoy it or not so much? I am so interested to hear!

Writing Inspiration from a Winter Wonderland


This morning it warmed up to 3.7 degrees F before I had to take the dog out. Most mornings in winter, My Engineer Husband (MEH) happily takes her out to the “Dog Woods Trail,” where we’ve been going for the past nine years. And when I say happily, it’s because I’m happy I don’t have to go. MEH and I laugh as he puts on his four layers of pants and shirts, three sets of socks, great big winter boots, and his huge L.L. Bean parka. He assures me it’s not overboard, but I always wonder.


MEH is rarely out of town, but when he is, it falls to me to take the dog. This morning I wanted to wimp out. 3.7 degrees, warmed up from zero when I first got up. Too cold. But I don’t like to wimp out. Plus, I told myself that it would be inspirational for the fiction I’m writing; there are a lot of scenes where my protagonist, Maggie, walks outside with her dog in the winter and it’s cold…. you can see why I need the inspiration.


I pretty much had to convince even the dog to go—she’s nine and arthritic. And she was comfy in bed (mine). But the dog biscuit did the trick, and out we trudged. Me, in my two layers of pants (huge mistake not to go for four), long silk underwear (not racy, believe me) and fleece shirt, bulky down jacket, L. L. Bean boots (yeah, those same ones as in the other blog), ski mask, and hat. I took a picture with my phone but couldn’t bring myself to post it. I am a little modest. (Instead I posted a picture of my dog—she wore her birthday suit for the occasion.)


It was very very cold at Dog Woods Trail. So cold that when I breathed and my breath condensed inside my ski mask, it froze almost immediately. The inside of my nostrils froze. Abby’s whiskers froze, and she had frosty glaze on her black fur. And I had plenty of time to reflect, gather information, be inspired by, and in general observe the freezing cold morning because Abby, in her infinite dog wisdom—that we humans can only hope to someday understand—left her toy somewhere midway through the walk, and we had to turn around to find it.


Still, I’m inspired. My character, Maggie, still hates the snow and cold, and she’ll be happy when her husband Joe returns from his latest business trip. But not because the late-winter woods aren’t beautiful. They are. And the sight is incredible to see.


The snow was piled high everywhere, even where it didn’t fall—the wind shifted it to between the trees, around the rocks, and in every imaginable crevice and opening through the Dog Woods and out onto the trails and fields. The fence surrounding the parking lot had all but disappeared, with only the tip-tops of the posts to see. Maggie almost forgot the cold as she marveled at the absolute volume of snow, if nothing else. She followed the path through the woods that led her to the same circuitous trail they always took, around the ball fields, which the dog—and she—happily traced, trudging slowly where it was icy slick, being careful not to fall.

She was extra careful to step around all the piles of frozen poop that had been left by other walkers’ dogs. Or maybe by the dog with the cross-country skier, who glided effortlessly past her earlier in her walk. He meant to pick it up; Maggie was sure of that. Finally, just when Maggie wished she had worn the third or fourth layer like Joe suggested, she and her faithful companion reached the car and—none the worse for wear—headed gratefully home to its wonderful warmth.


Looking forward to your comments about my winter observations and yours as well. If we can’t get inspiration out of this crazy winter weather of ours, then what is it good for? Do you enjoy the snow or are you just looking forward to spring (or a little of each)? How do you catch a mood or feeling for writing from your character’s point of view?


Cheers,

Julia